“On the Life of Man,” by Sir Walter Ralegh

Ralegh’s poem, “On the Life of Man,” offers a theatrical view of the world. Ralegh not only references various genres of playwriting such as passion plays and comedic works, but he also includes more technical terms related to the theatre as a building. He refers to tyring houses, or dressing rooms, and he also references the audience and the curtains closing at the end. “Life” also makes its primary focus the action of acting or performing itself. The incorporation of these references provides the reader with a window through which they can explore Ralegh’s philosophy that living one’s life is just one big performance. Life can be comedic, but it is primarily passionate. With that passion comes the happy and funny moments, but behind that joyous passion there can also be sad or difficult moments that nobody sees because of the performance we put on and because we, the actors in the performance, only let those unhappy emotions come through when the audience cannot see us, which is why the tyring houses are mentioned in the poem.

This piece can be compared to Beowulf in that the Christian author’s telling of the epic story further elucidates some of Ralegh’s main points in “Life.” First, the main focus of Ralegh’s poem was the act of performing itself, which we can read in Beowulf when Beowulf had to go fight Grendel’s mother. He was worried, but he did not want to show it because it would make the men accompanying him more afraid than they already were. The tyring room metaphor can be transferred to Beowulf as well, because Beowulf comforts a grieving Hrothgar in the mead hall only when the rest of the inhabitants are not paying full attention, almost as if they are breaking character when they are offstage and out of the audience’s line of sight.

There are funny moments in Beowulf, just like in life, particularly the battle of wits between Beowulf and Unferth. The two are having an insult contest, but it is humorous and clever. Hrothgar tells Beowulf before he leaves that Beowulf must live as best he can and be as great a king as he can in the time that he is given. He should share his treasures and rewards, and he should be strong in battle and of mind. The ending of Beowulf illustrates the closing of the curtains beautifully. Beowulf, killed in battle with a fierce dragon, is burned and buried with large amounts of treasure, truly capturing the glory and generosity with which he lived and ruled. Beowulf goes out fighting, like Ralegh writes that humans go out still performing.


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